The shape of the world a generation from now will be influenced far more by how we communicate the values of our society to others than by military or diplomatic superiority. William Fulbright, 1964

Wednesday, December 16, 2009


Albertus Herwanta

All roads, it’s said, lead to Rome.

The one that took Albertus Herwanta to the capital of Italy and the heart of his faith started far, far away – in a field in Central Java.

It was as a lad on his grandmother’s farm that he became close to the environment, experiencing the seasonal changes, conscious of the cycles and inter-dependency of plants, soil and animals, aware of the rituals of planting and harvest. He learned that the Javanese are never separate from nature.

All this, plus widespread reading (particularly British economist E F Schumacher’s seminal Small is Beautiful), and research helped clear the way to his present job – Indonesia’s Father Green.

When the young seminarian from Yogyakarta was ordained after theological studies in Malang, he pondered his future. What order to join?

“The Benedictines attracted, though I didn’t really want to shut myself away from the world,” he said. “I thought the Jesuits would be too difficult. My elder brother hadn’t succeeded - and he’s cleverer than me.

“So I chose the Carmelites. That seemed the right compromise. I wanted to teach (his parents had been schoolteachers) and do parish work.”

Which spirits up an image of a cosy living in a peaceful suburb or terraced village, every home easily reached by foot or bike. Here the priest knows the pious and the lapsed, their hearts bright and black, the trembling doubts of the devout and the holiness of the humble.

That picture doesn’t quite fit his present position. As Councillor General for the Carmelites he spends a lot of time squashed in Boeings. His parish covers Asia, including the sub continent of India, and Oceania, including Australia. That’s well over two billion souls, so ministering to all is a task beyond even the considerable energies of this articulate 51-year-old.

So is the brief he’s been given: To implement the charges laid on Catholics by Pope Paul 11 in 1990. The late pontiff’s message for the World Day of Peace was to ensure that “respect for life and the dignity of the human person extends also to the rest of creation.”

In layperson’s terms it means Catholics have to care for the environment. The Carmelites (properly named the Order of the Brothers of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, and established in the 12th century), hearkened.

Father Albertus has drawn the short straw – or won the big prize - depending on your outlook: Get the message to the masses. Green is good and Godly.

Before being transferred to Rome two years ago Father Albertus was settling for a year off from running a senior high school in Malang with 800 students, boys and girls.

Apart from studying for a master’s degree in education in the US he’d been teaching since he was ordained in 1987, and principal for ten years.

“I wanted time out, to recharge the batteries,” he said. “I was feeling tired. I hoped to do research, more reading.” He admired the writings of the late Javanese intellectual and diplomat Soedjatmoko, and Columban Father Paul McCartin’s A Theology of Environment.

Man proposes, God disposes. When you dedicate your life to a multinational corporation and suddenly get shunted to head office for six years then it’s time to shred personal plans, adjust to jet lag and learn how to pronounce spaghetti bolognaise correctly.

“Fortunately I’d studied Spanish while in the US so that helped, along with my knowledge of Latin,” he said. “The first two months were difficult. My colleagues come from eleven different countries so we all use Italian.”

Although he heads the Carmelite’s curiously named Commission for International Justice, Peace and Integrated Creation (is there any other sort?) his basic job is raising awareness of the threats to the environment and the need for action now.

Despite his position he will not be attending the United Nations’ Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen this month (December). Instead he’ll be in the Philippines propagating his message.

“What’s the point in going to Denmark and spending a lot of money on hotels for a few days of talking when I could be in Asia helping address this very serious challenge and maybe influencing thousands?” he said in Malang. He stopped off in the central East Java hilltown to address a seminar for 70 Catholic teachers.

“If we can inspire teachers to be involved in environmental issues then we can have an impact on the wider community. Teachers are still respected. They may not have much status now but they do have authority. The children can help raise awareness in their families that we are talking about an important issue that affects us all.”

Before handing the teachers over to former zoo vet and now green activist Dr Suryo Prawiroatmodjo to give practical tips on making environmental studies fun, Father Albertus spent an hour inspiring his listeners.

Using the sort of energy normally seen in TV commercials for caffeine drinks he sang and joked his way script-free through the barriers brought to the seminar by the overworked educators: Oh Lord - not another topic to add to an already crowded curriculum – and on our day off, too!

“I know they’re under pressure,” Father Albertus said, “I’ve given them the theological foundation for preserving the environment.

“The Genesis verse which says humans must fill the earth and subdue it has been misinterpreted – the earth is not to be exploited and destroyed but nurtured and worked in partnership. We are called to contemplate the peace of God through the beauty of nature

“Altering habits, lifestyles and mindsets is a huge challenge. We can’t change others unless we first change ourselves. We have to start little by little, turning off taps, picking up litter, making compost, recycling. It has to be repeated again and again.

“It means raising awareness, motivating, helping people understand what’s going on, building their knowledge. The situation in Indonesia is getting worse. Governments are slow to respond – these things can be done better through private organisations.

“The next step we’ll take is to run seminars for public school teachers and through them join with the Muslim community. This is not an issue of theology, we don’t proselytise. The critical question to ask is this: Do we want our grandchildren to inherit the mess we are making?”

(First published in The Jakarta Post 15 December 09)

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